WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate closed a week of work Thursday with no deal to extend unemployment benefits to millions of Americans out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers took a small step toward advancing debate on a package that would extend the unemployment benefits set to expire Friday.
Talks Wednesday involving Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and congressional Democrats on Capitol Hill showed no signs of progress on a second massive round of aid that would address twin economic and health crises caused by the pandemic.
Both sides acknowledge they are far from agreement on a final figure for the aid. Republicans are proposing close to $1 trillion in the HEALS Act, while Democrats are using the $3 trillion HEROES Act passed earlier this year as their starting point in negotiations.
“If our Democratic colleagues had acted with urgency, unemployed Americans wouldn't be facing a total elimination of this extra help,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor just ahead of the vote that will set up a final move on the measure next week.
“Instead, jobless Americans are staring down this cliff because Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and the Democratic leader have refused to negotiate,” McConnell said. He said the speaker's "far-left proposal" was "absurd.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer noted McConnell likely does not even have sufficient support for the Republican proposal within his own party.
“His caucus is so divided that — in his own words — 20 of his members don't want to vote for anything,” Schumer said Thursday. “And now, faced with a crisis that they created for 10 weeks — 10 weeks, we have asked the leader to negotiate — and now finally, they've woken up to the fact that we're at a cliff, but it's too late.”
Congress passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in late March to address business closures and historic unemployment numbers caused by shutdowns in the early days of the pandemic.
CARES Act provisions that provided a $600 weekly boost to unemployment insurance for tens of millions of Americans who lost their jobs are due to expire this weekend. Congress appears unlikely to negotiate an extension of those benefits by their self-imposed deadline at the end of July.
Republicans have suggested decreasing the amount of unemployment aid from $600 a week to $200 a week, with state programs eventually replacing federal assistance. But Democrats say that is unacceptable when so many in the country are still out of work.
“I want to make it clear that the $600 is something that ought to be in this bill,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Wednesday.
Mnuchin is proposing a short-term bill that would extend those benefits while allowing lawmakers to depart the Capitol for their traditional August recess in their home districts. But Pelosi has already rejected a “piecemeal” approach to the negotiations.
Republican leadership is also facing significant disagreement from within the ranks of their own party, with some members concerned the government cannot continuously pour money into addressing the crisis while the national debt rises to nearly $25 trillion.
After previously dismissing the Senate Republicans’ proposal as “nearly irrelevant,” President Donald Trump suggested to reporters Wednesday, “We ought to work on the eviction so that people don’t get evicted. We work on the payment to the people, and the rest of it we’re so far apart, we don’t care. We really don’t care. We want to take care of the people.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday the Republicans’ proposal would provide “another round of cash for households — more than $3,000 for an eligible family of four, with even more support for adult dependents. Another round of additional federal unemployment benefits, assistance which will otherwise simply expire. And another targeted round of the Paycheck Protection Program to prevent even more layoffs and keep paychecks coming to American workers.”
But House Democrats and some Senate Republicans have objected to unrelated provisions in the bill.
Schumer Wednesday detailed Democrats’ concerns that the proposals favor corporations over average Americans.
“The Republican bill has a tax break for three-martini lunches, but no food assistance for hungry kids,” he said. “There’s $2 billion for a new FBI building whose location will increase the value of the Trump hotel, but no funding to help state and local governments retain teachers, firefighters, bus drivers and other public employees.”
Both the HEALS and HEROES proposals would provide varying levels of aid to assist with the reopening of schools and childcare centers when the school year is set to begin in the fall.
McConnell has also said he would not bring any bill up for a vote on the Senate floor without provisions protecting schools and businesses from being sued if workers, customers or students contract the coronavirus.
Hoyer told reporters that House Democrats will be on call next week if Senate Republicans and Democrats can reach an agreement and pass legislation. Once the Democratic-controlled House passes the new round of aid, it will head to Trump to be signed into law.